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Toward A Compassionate Society: Introduction

Tue, Jan 1, 2002

Book Excerpts

By Mahnaz Afkhami
In Toward A Compassionate Society

The new millennium begins at a particularly crucial point in human history. We achieved an incredible capacity for doing good or evil in the past hundred years. We now have almost magical powers in science and technology. We know much about our world—from the smallest particles in atoms to the largest constellations that constitute our universe. We have overcome the handicaps of distance and time on our planet. We can cure many of the diseases of body and mind that were deemed scourges of humanity only a few decades ago. We can feed and clothe the peoples of our world, eliminate starvation, protect our children, provide security and hope for the poor, and safeguard our environment. In sum, we have the objective ability to achieve a more compassionate society in this century, but only if we can summon to our individual and common consciousness the goodwill that our ancestors sought since the beginning of history and our human conscience demands of us now.

But throughout the past century we also experienced the horrors of total war, wanton destructiveness, and mindless genocide. These horrors are still very much a part of our landscape as so violently demonstrated by the act of terror perpetrated on September 11, 2001 against the United States, the richest and most powerful nation ever on earth. In poor and powerless countries fear and despair are an integral part of living. In most of these societies colonialism has left behind a legacy of state supremacy and autocracy, and people accustomed to look to the state for support and relief. The state, however, is structurally unable to satisfy the needs of the people. Many developing nations—patriarchal, poor, uneducated and largely young—face the exigencies of globalism but lack the skills needed to compete economically and culturally, and cannot gain such skills unless they are substantially and steadfastly helped by the nations that possess them. In these societies, the state cannot cope simultaneously with the demands made on it by a competitive global world order over which it has little or no control, and help its citizens achieve prosperity in freedom, equality, and justice. Shorn of the protection of the nation state, a majority of the citizens in these countries will have to fend for themselves against overwhelming global forces they can neither affect nor understand. Consequently, many of them, who have lost all hope of ever achieving a better standard of living for themselves or for their children, will be vulnerable to the lure of the irrational, including the empty promises of religious fundamentalism. They will suffer, and the most vulnerable among them—women and children—will suffer most.

In the meantime, the triumph of western democracy and modern capitalism has led to novel dilemmas. In the west, increasingly the individual is the central criterion for designing ethical systems. On the other hand, social structures and processes designed and governed by technology progressively fall beyond individual will. Rapid, uncontrollable change overwhelms the values and relationships that in the past gave our lives constancy and meaning. Consequently, the optimism that emerged from the age of enlightenment and formed much of the modern thrust for the development of humane values in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is now yielding to a pessimistic view that we are losing control over our lives. This sense of helplessness, which has led to cynical views of government and political authority, diminishes our ability to fashion our future.

How then do we go from here to a compassionate society? Will the society of tomorrow be anything like our idea of what a caring society should be– a society based on fairness, equity, help to the needy, community, family, an ethical system that stresses the value of the “other?” How do people relate to each other in such a society? What are its spaces, communities, borders? In order to have a compassionate society, is it necessary that everyone be included? In a world of instant communication and interconnection, in a world of diverse cultures and standards, how do we uphold common values and how do we live those values? Hegel suggests that in conditions of master-slave relationships, master and slave both lead alienated lives and therefore unhappy lives. Is a compassionate society possible if we barricade ourselves in or others out by erecting economic, political, psychological, or moral walls that in simple language translate as jails, ghettos, borders, and institutional discrimination? Can a compassionate society be constructed on the notion of exclusivity? If not, how is it possible to overcome the odds?

Given the character and present distribution of technological and economic powers, can their formative structures, processes, and values lead us—if left unchallenged— to a semblance of a compassionate society? If history left to itself will not take us to a compassionate society, are there ways that we as conscious human beings can steer it to a more compassionate end? Will democratic processes prevail? What values are we to stress? Do we need to invent new values or reimagine and reinterpret the old ones in order to accommodate individual and social needs that are specifically modern and which, therefore, did not exist in the past? How do we bridge universal human values and cultural diversity in human society? What is the role of the arts in shaping the compassionate society of tomorrow? How will beauty be defined? What ways will we find to soften the rough edges of existence? What is the meaning of
meaning in life? Who is to define it? History so far has been mostly man’s story. How will women’s expanding role help build a compassionate society? What must we do to become effective participants?
Can we exert a significant influence on the structure and process of politics? Will we move into positions of power more adroitly in the future than in the past? What are the realms in which our contributions become strategic? Can we become powerful as women rather than as surrogate men? How will we change the form and content of power?

This collection of essays begins a conversation on how to achieve a compassionate society by offering several thoughtful perspectives. We start with an essay by Mahbub ul Haq, whose distinguished career included positions as Pakistan’s Minister of Finance and as a senior advisor with the UNDP. Haq identifies steps which we as a global society can take to make our world more compassionate: universal basic education, primary health care for all, safe drinking water for all, adequate nutrition for severely malnourished children, family planning services for all willing couples, access to credit, ending export subsidies for arms sales, banishing poverty worldwide, and working toward establishing a global government. While far-reaching in scope, Haq’s words are powerful and prescient. “[A]bolishing poverty in the twenty-first century must become a collective international responsibility,” he writes, “since human life is not safe in the rich nations if human despair travels in the poor nations. Let us recognize that consequences of global poverty travel across national frontiers without a passport in the form of drugs, AIDS, pollution, and terrorism. . . . In the last analysis, human security means a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, an ethnic tension that did not explode, a dissident who was not silenced, a human spirit that was not crushed. The imperatives of this human security have become universal, indivisible, and truly global today.”

Next is an essay by writer and professor Elise Boulding entitled “Peace Culture.” Boulding’s perspective is that a compassionate future can only begin with peace. In her essay she reviews the concept of peace in society and how it conflicts with some of our current institutional and religious behaviors. She then moves on to examine modern peace movements and the unique role that women and global organizations can have in building a more peaceful future. “In spite of the visibility of violence and war,” she writes, “people are able to see past that violence to a different future world. People who cannot imagine peace will not know how to work for it. Those who can imagine it are using that same imagination to devise practices and strategies that will render war obsolete. Imagination is the key.”

The third essay, by Charlotte Bunch, Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, examines human rights as the foundation for a compassionate society. Writes Bunch, “Without a clear ethic of respect for the equal worth and value of every person’s humanity, compassion runs the danger of being a form of charity and condescension toward those less fortunate.” Her essay examines the origins of the human rights movement, the definition of human rights across cultures and religions, and how the rights of women must also be included in broader discussions of human rights. “Human rights are not an abstraction,” she concludes. “They are about the kind of world we want, the relationships that should exist among people, the dignity and respect that should be provided to every individual, and the social interactions that should be encouraged in every community.”

Arati Rao, writer, scholar, and former Associate Director of the South Asian Institute at Columbia University, combines the themes of the preceding essays with her view of individual rights within modern societies. “The conditions under which values that are fundamental to individual freedom,” writes Rao, “including women’s freedom and rights, can be reconciled with community-oriented values, will establish themselves only when women are recognized as a natural, constant, and integral part of their communities. To encourage these trends, we need strong legislation emerging out of women’s experience and advocacy, with strong enforcement and implementation mechanisms. Let us also strengthen rights in civil society, since women-in-the-family are enmeshed in a complex web of social relations that potentially can enhance everyone’s well-being as well as immure them in injustice.”

Uma Narayan’s essay describes how our compassionate society is not just about respecting individual rights, improving human rights, building peace movements, and reforming society, but about recognizing our rights, restrictions, and responsibilities as part of our communities. Narayan, an author and Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, believes tension results when families or societies impose their values on individuals, or when individuals exert their independence in a direction not sanctioned by families or societies. These tensions are particularly evident with regard to women in virtually all societies, but they are most visible in the developing world where women’s rights and human rights are denounced by many rulers as being “Western notions” foreign to the concerns and world-views of people in developing countries. These rulers raise the flag of “cultural preservation” as their reason for objecting to change, but as Narayan points out, “While it is always crucial to reflect on whether particular changes are for the better or not, the simple fact that rights for women might lead to change in a community’s way of life cannot be a legitimate reason for denying women their rights. It is worth reiterating that every human culture has elements worth preserving as well as elements worth changing. Thus, we should not assume that ‘cultural preservation’ is a good in itself, nor that cultural modification is necessarily bad.”

Arvind Sharma, a Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, in his essay entitled “Women and the Politics of Spirituality” takes the perspective that while most religions are characterized by structures of subordination when it comes to women, religions also contain structures of emancipation for women which can be recognized and enacted. Sharma writes, “As one progresses toward the spiritual, the distinction between men and women becomes increasingly less relevant, first physiologically and then psychologically. To the extent that the distinction might ultimately vanish, the discriminations which these distinctions may involve must also fade away. As the cleric who defended Galileo at his trial stated, ‘The purpose of scripture is to teach how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.’ The spiritual path, per se, occupies a religious space largely removed from structures of male dominance and female subordination. Sex and gender distinctions are irrelevant.”

Aruna Rao, President of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, concludes the anthology with a roadmap. “Suppose we were able to identify which attributes should comprise a compassionate society,” she writes. “How do we get there from here?” Rao’s recommendations are built on her work studying and reforming organizations, particularly with regard to the role of women in organizations. An organization such as society does not change because you tell it to change, but because its new goals are “owned” by those inside the organization who can see problems and help shape solutions. “This strategy does not attempt to ‘guilt’ people into change nor does it try to convince them using ‘brute rationality’” writes Rao. “Dialogue is a key tool,” and it is important to start this dialogue “from where people are,” leaving time for growth and space for change, and allowing silent voices to be heard.

Lastly, the anthology’s appendix contains some important documents relating to the culture of peace. They include the UN Declaration and programme of action on a culture of peace, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Hague Agenda for peace and justice for the twenty-first century, Declaration on the elimination of violence against women, Beijing statement on women’s contribution to a culture of peace, Seville statement on violence, Earth Charter, and links to other declarations relating to the culture of peace.

As we read these essays and reevaluate our perspectives—as we formulate our agenda for discussion of how to reach a compassionate society—we must be bold and creative, our feet firmly grounded in the realities that surround us, but our gaze aimed at the lofty possibilities that our advancements in science and technology promise and that our growth as a global society is only beginning to comprehend.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Culture of Peace

"The promotion of a culture of peace requires more than an absence of war" - Our Shared Human Values

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"We must be bold and creative, our feet firmly grounded in the realities that surround us, but our gaze aimed at the lofty possibilities that our advancements in science and technology promise and that our growth as a global society is only beginning to comprehend." - Toward A Compassionate Society